Sunday, April 16, 2017

Byleth – Il demone dell’incesto (1972)

I’m not much into demonology; I only remember a couple names of demonic entities off the top of my head, like Beelzebub, Belial, and Astaroth, but I had only heard about the demon Byleth in reference to the Italian horror film Byleth – The Demon of Incest (1972), and with the title to go off of, I pretty much thought of Byleth as some sort of ghastly, incest inducing demon. I tried to look in to it a little, but other than this film, I found very little relating Byleth to incest. The connection of the theme of incest to Byleth in this film is perhaps more in reference to the belief that the demonically possessed display sexually deviant behavior. 

As far as lore goes, the demon Byleth (sometimes spelled Beleth or Bilet) is a monarch of Hell and a fallen angel. He rides a pale horse and commands eighty-five legions of demons. The sounds of trumpets and melodies precedes his presence when he is conjured. His pale horse suggests he could possibly be one of the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse, Death.

When summoned, Byleth will test the courage and worthiness of the conjuror by appearing most intimidating, frightful, and extremely pissed off, and if they are too inexperienced and unprepared, the ritual will likely result in the conjuror’s death (although it’s said that Byleth can be softened with a bottle of wine). If through all manner of advanced esoteric ritual, they manage to subdue Byleth, he reveals his true form, which is supposed to be that of a beautiful young girl who has the power to make someone fall in love, kind of like a love genie.

So, in the film, someone must’ve summoned Byleth and used her power to make Duke Lionello Shandwell (Mark Damon) fall in love with his sister Barbara (Claudia Gravy). It all makes sense now. Or maybe not. I can’t help thinking that if asked about the situation, Byleth would probably say, “Yeah, I possessed Lionello, making him into a sexually frustrated madman and all, but I have no idea where that whole incest thing came from. That was all him.”

Byleth – Il demone dell’incesto is a demonic possession movie with gothic horror and giallo slants, and was directed and co-written by Leopoldo Savona (Savona had previously directed a lot of war and western movies as well as the delightful spooky hotel giallo, La morte scende leggera (1972)). Being a costume melodrama mostly shot in the Lazio province outside of Rome and on Elios film sets, Byleth has a little of the classic Italian Western feel to it. The film’s sentimental sounding music is by Vasili Kojucharov who also did the hokey but epic music for The Devil’s Wedding Night (1973).

The Duke Lionello Shandwell is delighted that his sister Barbara has returned home, after being away for a year in Venice, to his lonely ancestral castle in the Roman countryside. His happiness is disrupted when she reveals that she has since gotten married to Giordano (Aldo Bufi Landi - Four Flies on Grey Velvet (1971)). Although he doesn’t fully show it around others, Lionello is deeply disturbed by his sister’s new union, and it’s not in a protective big brother sort of way. While his sister and brother-in-law stay with him, Lionello sometimes retreats into a tormented, depraved, and jealous state, spying on them making love, harboring repressed aggression towards Giordano. Barbara is a red head, and meanwhile a giallo-esque killer is going around killing red heads. Could it be Lionello venting his aggressions over his unrequited love for Barbara, or is it something more demonic?

Byleth is pretty minimal on red herrings. It seems obvious that what is really supposed to be going on isn’t meant to be any kind of surprise. The character conflict is presented early on and we watch how it slowly unfolds into what I felt was a beautiful looking ending (I did like the horse rider in the mirror effect). 

I honestly didn’t think Damon had it in him, but this is an impressive performance. I was reminded a little of Stephen Boyd’s character in Marta (1971). (Damon was Sergio Corbucci’s original choice to play Django (1966), but he had to back out because of a scheduling conflict.) Damon may’ve seemed a little hammy in The Devil’s Wedding Night, but he’s quite intense here. There’s a disturbing brooding madness to his character that Damon portrays with a seriousness that’s in heavy contrast to the fun, cheesy madness he portrayed in TDWN

The demonic possession angle is handled more subtly here than in The Exorcist (1973). You do wonder, is it really madness, or is he possessed? They could’ve left it ambiguous, but I was pleased to see the movie answer this question. 

I had never heard of Claudia Gravy before, but she was a pleasant surprise as Lionello’s sister, Barbara, a very striking, statuesque red head with a changing wardrobe of various alluring era attire. She is sweet and likable, with an unconditional love for her brother. She will normally rebuff Lionello when he tends to get too uncomfortably close, but her tendency to still support her brother when things get sketchy does warrant a fair amount of legitimate concern for her wellbeing.

Barbara is the one who starts to suspect that something is seriously wrong with Lionello and tells her husband who relates to a priest about a name Lionello repeated during a seizure when he was a child, Byleth. The priest, who recognizes a certain demonic pattern to the murders, recommends an exorcism, but they never really get around to it. This film came out a year after The Exorcist (1970) book and about a year before The Exorcist film, but if Byleth was made after the film, you could be sure it would’ve ended in a more Exorcist-sploitation style standoff between a priest and the possessed, but I’m glad it went for a subtler tormented psyche approach. You do eventually get to see Byleth, or at least an incarnation of the demon, and despite being a low budget solution, I found it to be pretty cool and clever.

The murder scenes would be rather forgetful if there weren’t a couple nice touches, such as the way the killer punctures the neck of the victims with a triple blade, leaving three neck wounds, an interesting variation of the signature two neck wounds left by vampires. I also liked noticing a subtle demonic occurrence that is easy to miss; when Lionello goes into a fit of rage and attacks someone, you briefly see out-of-focus inverted crosses on the wall behind him.

Murder and disturbing psyches aside, this is a gorgeous looking film with wonderful medieval looking interiors and exteriors. It is a little like a vacation retreat to the Lazio region of Italy. The partially ruined empty medieval village is a great natural locale that could work to any film’s advantage but especially in this film since ancient evil and ancient ruins go hand in hand. It is a place for Lionello to ride his pale horse around in serenity and isolation. But bad encounters with murder and demonic activity seem to happen there too.

There just may not be enough going on for Byleth to be recommended to everyone. It’s not scary, but it is unnerving. It is slow, talky, and melodramatic, but there is a surprising lack of campiness. Despite a little humor and a couple-light hearted, tender moments, the movie is pretty dead serious. The era and setting does feel oppressive and authentic. The love triangle between Lionello, Barbara, and Giordano does have demented results. The film has its nude scenes and sleazy moments that do accompany Lionello’s voyeuristic vexations which give the movie some much needed intensity. Despite being demonic, it’s not a monster movie, as I was originally hoping, but the subtlety of it makes Byleth worth revisiting and analyzing, even if it wasn’t the most enthralling thing upon first viewing 

© At the Mansion of Madness


  1. Demonic possession and burning jealousy make great subject matter for cinematic exploration. I look forward to viewing Byleth, thanks for the review!

    1. You're right, there really is something kind of exploratory to it, a lot of captured emotions and moods, part of what makes for worthwhile repeat views. I do hope you like Byleth when you check it out.

  2. Women and their dresses here are just gorgeous! In general, I think the most beautiful actresses I have ever seen were starring in Italian movies of 1970s-1980s.